Washington DC is a great place to travel for those on a budget thanks to the number of free or cheap things to do, from the Smithsonian Museums to touring the government buildings.
You can really plan an entire week in the nation's capital and only pay for accommodation and food.
We list over 100 free things to do in DC below, but we divided them into sections:
- Public/Government Buildings
- Gardens & Parks
- Free Activities
- Sample Itinerary - spend 3 days in DC for free (almost!)
Keep reading for more information about each option, but at a glance here are a few ideas...
FREE THINGS TO DO A NIGHT
- Explore the Memorials
- Millennium Stage Concert at Kennedy Center
- Late at the Library of Congress
- Window Shop and Stroll a DC Neighborhood
- Military Parades & Concerts (Summer)
- Jazz in Sculpture Gardens (Summer)
- Movies in the Parks (Summer)
FREE THINGS TO DO WITH KIDS
- Smithsonian Museums & National Zoo
- Explore one of the many green spaces
- National Mall Scavenger Hunt
- Watching Changing of the Guards at Arlington National Cemetery
- Daniel's Story at Holocaust Museum
- Watch planes take off and land at Gravelley Point
- Junior Ranger Badge Activities
How do we know about Free Things to Do in DC? It's what we do! We are Free Tours by Foot after all.
Our guides have been leading tours through the city for more than a decade.
We've lived in the city as broke college students and frugal families with young kids.
Some of the 50K+ members in our Washington DC Travel Tips Facebook Group are looking for budget options and trust us to help!
PUBLIC AND GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS
One of the unique reasons to visit Washington, DC is to tour the government buildings - all of which are free to visit.
United States Capitol
You can tour the historic Capitol Building and watch the Senate and/or the House of Representatives in session.
While all three of these require tickets, there is no charge for them. You can find out how to obtain these tickets here.
It is free for US citizens to tour the White House, though appointments are required in advance and require a lot of planning.
You can read more about how to get tickets to a public tour of the White House here.
Another option is to tour the White House gardens and lawns during one of the spring or fall garden tours, which are also free and available to anyone who has a first-come first-served ticket.
The White House Visitor Center is about a block away from the President's House and is open to all.
The actual courtroom is open to the public, both when the court is in session or for docent-led lectures when the court is out of session.
You can also explore the historic building and the small museum on the ground floor.
No tickets are required for visiting the Supreme Court.
Library of Congress
One of the most beautiful buildings in the city, so don't expect to check out any books.
You can tour this historic building for its art, architecture, and history during opening hours.
Advanced reservations are required but have been very easy to get, even at the door.
The Library of Congress is open late on Thursdays until 8 pm so it is one of the free things you can do at night in DC.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Note: The BEP has not reopened to the public yet. With the move to Maryland by 2026, it is unlikely to reopen in this location.
If you want to see how money is made, the BEP is open for a quick tour to watch the process.
During peak season (March - Labor Day and again during Thanksgiving Weekend), tickets are required but there is no cost.
United States Botanic Gardens
A chance to explore flora from around the different climates of the United States, the Botanical Gardens is located at the base of Capitol Hill.
Tours of the FBI Building are possible but take a little know-how.
You will be guided to an exhibit room and small museum but only if you have an advance reservation.
These tours are only open to US citizens, though.
A guided tour of the Pentagon is a great way to learn more about the Department of Defense and is open to anyone who has an appointment.
These should be made pretty far in advance, so be sure to read our post on how to do so.
For more details on the tour, click here.
National Archives Museum
Here you can see the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, US Constitution, and more!
You can get timed tickets in advance for a small processing fee or you can walk up with no appointment, just be prepared to wait in line during busy times.
Read our post on how to plan your visit to the National Archives in DC.
FREE MUSEUMS IN DC
There are a number of free museums in DC thanks to the Smithsonian Institution.
Most Smithsonian museums do not require tickets and have no admission cost to enter. These are some of the most popular sites in Washington DC.
A great way to explore the museums without being overwhelmed is to join us on a museum tour!
- National Museum of American History
- National Museum of Natural History
- National Air and Space (the one on the National Mall) & the Udvar Hazy Annex
- National Museum of the American Indian
- National Postal Museum
- Anacostia Community Museum
- The Smithsonian Art Museums: National Portrait Gallery, American Art, Renwick, Hirshhorn, Freer Sackler Gallery, African Art
- National Museum of African American History & Culture
In Washington DC, it may be easier to ask which Smithsonian museums are not free.
Even those museums that require tickets such as the National Zoo, Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, and the NMAAHC are still free.
There is no cost to get tickets to these museums.
Not all the museums in Washington DC are free.
We have a list of the best museums in DC to cover which ones are worth the admission cost.
Glenstone Art Museum
The Glenstone Art Museum is located outside of Washington DC and has both an interior gallery and outdoor sculpture garden.
It is a small space so tickets are required but there is no admission fee.
Planet Word Museum
This museum is free to enter but it is worth a suggested donation, especially for older kids.
Incredibly interactive museum, Planet Word focuses on the development of language.
There are hidden rooms, karaoke, joke rooms, and more.
National Gallery of Art
The NGA has two wings - the more traditional West wing and a more modern East wing.
Here you can find the only Leonardo Da Vinci painting in the Americas, Turner landscapes, and Calder mobiles.
No tickets or admission fees are required. Read more about the NGA using our guide to this and other art museums in Washington DC.
You can also explore the Sculpture Gardens outside the National Gallery of Art and outside the Hirshhorn Gallery.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
This is an incredibly moving museum focusing on the events leading up to, during, and aftermath of the Holocaust during WWII, but also on other genocides in modern history.
Timed tickets are required to visit the permanent exhibition. You can get these in advance or try for same-day tickets on the day.
If you aren't able to get tickets to the permanent exhibit, you can still explore other areas of the museum.
Ford's Theatre is where President Lincoln was shot that fateful night in April 1865.
While it is a working theatre again where you can attend performances in the evening, you can also tour the theatre and museum during the day for free.
Advanced tickets require a purchasing fee but it is worth it if you want to visit during peak tourist season.
Same-day tickets are available at no cost every day but go fast. Read our post on planning your visit to Ford's Theater.
African American Civil War Museum
Located just off the U Street Corridor once known as "Black Broadway," this museum focuses on the less credited African American soldiers during the Civil War.
Cedar Hill - Frederick Douglass House
Cedar Hill is the historic home of Frederick Douglass located in Anacostia.
It is a National Park site today with a small museum and ranger talks.
Frederick Douglass' wife maintained the home and his belongings so it is an incredible flashback into his life.
A once private home on Embassy Row, it was donated to the Society of the Cincinnati.
You can explore a museum about the Revolutionary War and tour a beautiful Gilded Age home.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Second only to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, this is the second-largest church in the world.
It has 81 chapels and sacred images that you can tour with a dedicated docent to learn about the background of this Catholic Church, as well as the architecture and mosaic artwork.
You can visit most days of the week.
There is a charge to enter the National Cathedral unless you are attending a service or just touring the exterior of the building.
The Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection is one of, if not, the first modern art museums.
While there is an admission cost on some days, some ticket times are name your own price.
Its most well-known piece is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. You can also find works by Picasso, Rothko, and Whistler.
It is always free to visit the memorials and most are open day and night. You do not have to pay to see the Lincoln Memorial.
The best way to explore memorials is with a tour guide - you can join us for a guided tour.
But you can also use our guide to the top 25 monuments and memorials for a self-guided tour.
- President Abraham Lincoln
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
- WWII Memorial
- President George Washington Monument (though if you want to take the elevator to the top, a ticket is required! Like many of the ticketed sites, they are free but there is a processing fee to reserve them in advance)
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- President Thomas Jefferson Memorial
- George Mason Memorial
- Japanese American Memorial
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower
- American Veterans Disabled for Life
- President Ulysses S. Grant
- Air Force Memorial
- Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial
- US Naval Memorial
- Law Enforcement Memorial
- Albert Einstein
- DC War Memorial
- Pentagon 9/11 Memorial
- WWI Memorial at Pershing Park
Exploring some of the city's historic cemeteries is a great free option.
A guide is a must so you can find your way around these large sites and learn the stories about those buried here.
Arlington National Cemetery
This hallowed ground is our nation's most famous military cemetery.
You will find presidents, 5-star generals, and military heroes buried here as well as a chance to pay respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
What started out as a cemetery for Congress, this landscaped cemetery is now open to the local community.
It is a favorite of our guides for being a self-proclaimed "hip cemetery" that hosts 5Ks, Yoga Mortem in the Crypt, and Halloween tours.
A guided tour introduces you to historic figures who signed the Declaration of Independence, and more recent additions with artistic and unique grave markers.
Rock Creek Cemetery
Rock Creek Cemetery is another cemetery with rolling hills that appear like a park.
You'll find a number of beautiful and haunting sculptures here.
Oak Hill Cemetery
We offer tours of Oak Hill Cemetery!
A bucolic setting is the resting place of famed Americans and is most recently known for being the setting of the book, Lincoln in the Bardo.
Oak Hill Cemetery has a beautiful Renwick Chapel to explore and is one of the few remaining cemeteries to still have an on-site superintendent living on the grounds.
Gardens & Parks
Washington DC is beautiful at all times of year but when the flora is in full bloom, it is a sight to see.
Many of the city's parks and gardens are free to enter.
- Teddy Roosevelt Island
- Rock Creek Park
- Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
- Anacostia Park & River Trail
- Bishops Garden at the Washington National Cathedral
- Bartholdi Park & United States Botanic Gardens
- Gardens at the Franciscan Monastery
- United States Arboretum
- Dumbarton Oaks (winter only, November-March)
- Tudor Place Gardens (admission to the gardens is free, though we recommend entering the house as well!)
- C&O Canal in Georgetown
- Mount Vernon Trail
There are many small parks throughout the city - city parks and national park service-run parks are all free.
Many of the traffic circles in DC feature memorial statues as well.
OTHER FREE ACTIVITIES
- Our Self-Guided Tours!
- Cherry Blossom Bloom Viewing on the Tidal Basin
- Rock Creek Park Nature Center Planetarium
- Beach Volleyball by the Lincoln Memorial
- Walk/Bike ride along the Potomac River or take the Anacostia River Trail
- Junior Ranger Badge Activities (TIP: On April 15, and only April 15, you can get a special Titanic Memorial stamp for your National Park Passport!)
- Watch planes land at Gravelly Point at DCA Airport.
- Sunday Drum Circle at Meridian Hill Malcolm X Park
- Walk along Black Lives Matter Plaza by the White House
Explore one of the neighborhoods in DC for people watching, and window shopping:
- Woolley Mammoth: pay-what-you-can seats, offered for the first two performances of every mainstage production (usually Monday or Tuesday). Tickets (two per person) are sold at the theater 90 minutes prior to showtime.
- National Theatre: free performance series Saturday Morning
- Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: free performance series at the Millennium Stage many evenings at 6 p.m.
- American Art Museum Take Five!: performance series usually takes place on the third Thursday of each month
- Sculpture Garden: Jazz in the Garden on Friday evenings during the summer
- Folger Shakespeare Library: Select events are free, with many family programs that are free.
- Screen on the Green: Free films shown on a giant outdoor screen on the National Mall each Summer.
Military Band Summer Performances:
- U.S. Air Force Band performs free concerts every Friday and Saturday at various places in DC area.
- U.S. Navy Band performs free concerts in Washington DC each week.
- U.S. Army Band performs free concerts each week in various DC locations.
- The President's Own takes part in the Sunset Parade at Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial every Tuesday
- Pershing's Own takes part in Twilight Tattoo on Wednesdays at Fort Meyer.
Free Monthly Activities
Our monthly posts include a section on free things to do that month.
This includes special events, parades, and festivals, that are held during that month.
Sample Itinerary - Spend 3 days in DC for free (almost)
You can easily spend 3 days in DC while only paying for accommodation, transportation, and food!
You can save money by using the Circulator Bus system which is only $1 per person.
Make sure to read our guide on Cheap Eats to save money on the food, too.
Start the morning exploring Capitol Hill - US Capitol, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court on our Capitol Hill tour.
Enjoy Eastern Market for lunch or eat in the Capitol Visitor Center if you plan on taking the US Capitol Building tour.
Spend the afternoon at one of the many free museums in DC - Air and Space if you're looking for something close by! Stop by the National Botanic Gardens on the way.
Dinner at a DC staple like Old Ebbits Grill, which is just a short walk from our evening tour. Walk by the White House at night on the way.
Take our Memorials and Moonlight walking tour to visit the National Mall
Pay respects at Arlington National Cemetery on our name-your-own-price walking tour.
Have lunch at the food trucks on the National Mall before spending the afternoon at another museum.
Grab an early dinner in Georgetown to explore the neighborhood (we have self-guided tours!)
Depending on the time of year, spend the evening enjoying one of the military performances or a free concert at the Kennedy Center.
Start your day with a morning with breakfast at the Wharf (District Donuts is a favorite!) then walk to the Tidal Basin to visit FDR and Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (don't forget to get tickets in advance!)
Have lunch at the Cafe at the NGA Sculpture Garden and then head across the street to the National Archives
Visit Ford's Theatre (don't forget to get tickets!)
If you have some time, make your way to the nearby National Portrait Gallery open until 7 pm nightly.
Late dinner at one of the many amazing restaurants in the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area of DC.